In the ancient world no one could talk or read too much about philosophy. Wealthy Athenian nobles, Plato and Xenophon, for instance—even Roman emperors, like Marcus Aurelius—lived for the hours they could devote to philosophical discourse. The pagan’s conversion to philosophy was as important to him as conversion to Christ was for a Christian. When his political career came to an end, Cicero composed masterful Latin versions of Greek thought and considered his time well spent.

Things are different now, of course. Religion has replaced philosophy for the average person. Philosophers are academics and by concentrating on technique have managed to turn a subject that could excite a normal, healthy young aristocrat like Xenophon into a “field” as quibbling and repellent as Aristophanes’ famous parody of Socrates’ school in The Clouds. Professional philosophers know something is amiss and have tried to get back in touch with a wider public. One result has been a split between those who “do philosophy” and those who “do history of philosophy,” i.e., discuss the texts that hand down what thinkers of yore thought. Is it possible to make an original contribution to today’s intellectual and moral problems by reading texts written hundreds, even thousands of years ago?

Stephen Clark, professor of philosophy at the University of Liverpool, says “yes.” In 1973, his Aristotle’s Man awoke us to the many insights the Master of those-who-know still has to offer our world. Since then, Clark has written books on the moral status of animals and on “animals’ rights,” as well as his brilliant Gifford Lectures on natural theology, From Athens to Jerusalem (1984). He is now involved in a three volume series, Limits and Renewals, trying to open up the closed shop of contemporary academic philosophy.

A number of academic disciplines have advanced by narrowing and concentrating their vision, by excluding the role of purpose. Modern linguistics and physics would not exist without that heroic and successful asceticism. Self-control, however, is one thing; starvation, something quite different. Philosophy’s historic mission has been to understand the world, and that mission cannot succeed by refusing to think about great chunks of that world. Some disciplines have profited from relegating God and purpose, devils and angels to a neighboring room. Philosophy has been reduced to debating whether other minds even exist. Berkeley’s John Searle has been subjected to ridicule for suggesting that there are rational reasons for believing that our language refers to an objective reality outside itself.

Stephen Clark tells us in Civil Peace and Sacred Order (1989) and A Parliament of Souls that it makes no sense to talk about politics and what human beings do and are without talking about God and an objective moral order. Philosophers should not only read the great philosophers of the past, and that means Plotinus as well as Plato and Aristotle; they should also read great literature, and even pretty good literature, ranging from Gerard’ Manley Hopkins to Rudyard Kipling and on to Olaf Stapledon, who wrote science fiction in the 30’s and 40’s.

The enemy is reductionism. Human beings are much closer to other animals than Utopian “fantasies allow for. (Testosterone lives!) At the same time, human life and achievement make no sense unless we posit a spiritual level. The individual is no self-contained reality, but a Platonic form, filled with forces from below and above. The Greeks were right to think of violence and lust, Ares and Aphrodite, as powers that can and do take over mortals and use them as they will. Homer’s picture of Aphrodite ordering Helen into Paris’s bedroom after he has run away from battle is a truer picture of the human condition than the image of the rational decisionmaker of modern individualism. (Clark even promises us in volume three a defense of Marcus Aurelius’ speculation that this world is but a dream and a delusion.)

Harvard’s John Rawls wants us to determine what is just by working out laws that will seem fair to any set of individuals not prejudiced by historical background, socioeconomic status, and a crippling early family life. There are, however, no individuals that are not the result of genes, history, family, religion, and language, to name just a few factors. Yet the individualist wants to make an absolute out of his passing fancies for war or for peace, for a bizarre misinterpretation of a poem, or for another person’s wife. The individual is real. The “outside” world is only his interpretation. Even something as common as the colors that clothe the world are cultural agreements, with no basis in nature. (The ancient Epicureans knew this, of course.) We might answer that just because the Greeks called blood purple and the sea “winefaced” while we call them red and blue, does that mean that there is no sea, no blood?

The same individualist who asserts the impossibility of getting beyond himself to Wordsworth’s intentions in “The Idiot Boy” or to the devine “Thou shalt not commit adultery” has a touching faith in the clarity and validity of the conclusions of modern science and technology. He is not bothered by the fact that science and technology are not cultural universals, but the result of a definite and limited historical tradition, not unlike our morals and religion, our literature and our art. In fact, we have more confirming evidence for the incest taboo and the text and meaning of Wordsworth’s words than we do for the Theory of Relativity or the Neo-Darwinism Synthesis. If the tradition that supports all these cultural formations collapses, how long will any part of it survive?

How long can philosophy itself survive as an academic game, once it has been severed from its historical roots in reading and commenting on the canonical texts? Stephen Clark writes so well and so playfully, quoting a poet here, indulging an aesthetic or religious whim there, that the reader may lose sight of the profound seriousness of his long, three-volume essay. Most of us realize that our lives would be chaos if we could not remember what we had done in college, as young adults, even the day before yesterday. What future awaits a society whose intellectual leaders have forgotten their Hopkins and Kipling, their Plato and Plotinus? We can banish great thinkers from college curricula, but before long Kipling’s Gods of the Copybook Headings with fire and sword will return.


[A Parliament of Souls: Limits and Renewals, Volume II, by Stephen R.L. Clark (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 208 pp., $49.95]